‘The Worst Marriage Proposal in the World’: on June 8, 1913, in Prague, Franz Kafka has finally begun to ask for Felice’s hand in marriage. But he breaks off mid-sentence, and it’s not until June 16th that he is able to bring himself to finish the letter. It ends up being over twenty pages long. Kafka begins with a detailed account of how he needs to look for a doctor –what exactly he wants to certify, perhaps fertility or sanity, is unclear. Or maybe it’s all just a pretext to delay the inevitable marriage and its consummation: “Between you and me there stands, apart from everyone else, the doctor. It is doubtful what he will say, because the medicinal diagnoses are not really the crucial factor in such decisions, and if they were, then it wouldn’t be worth taking them into account. I was, as I said, not really ill, but I am.” Hmm. Then follows a passage in which Kafka, that wonderful, sensitive stylist, established a form of written stuttering:
Now bear in mind, Felice, that in the face of this uncertainty it is hard to say the words, and it must sound peculiar. It’s simply too soon to say it. But afterwards it will be too late, and then there won’t be any time for discussing such things as you mentioned in your last letter. But there isn’t any time to hesitate for too long, at least that’s how I feel about it, and so that’s why I’m asking: in view of the above premise, which is sadly ineradicable, do you want top consider whether you want to become my wife? Do you want that?
In fact, what he probably wanted to write was ‘Do you really want that?????’
Then, in a rare moment of clarity, he presents Felice with the cost-benefit calculation of a potential marriage:
Now give some thought, Felice, to how marriage would change us, what each of us would gain and lose. I would lose my –for the most part, terrible – solitude and gain you, whom I love more than anyone else in the world. But you would lose your former life, with which you were almost entirely content. You would lose Berlin, the office you love, your friends, little pleasures, the prospect of marrying a healthy, cheerful, good man, and of having beautiful, healthy children, which you, if you stop to think about it, really long for. And on top of this inestimable loss, you would gain a sick, weak, unsociable, taciturn, sad, stiff, pretty much hopeless human being.
Who could turn down an offer like that? A proposal of marriage disguised as a confession.
Kafka is still uneasy, for he suspects he has stuck his neck out on this occasion, even though he tried, with hundreds and hundreds of words, to cover up and mask his question. But he knows that, somewhere in the middle of his letter, he did ask her to marry him. He hems and haws before putting the letter in an envelope, then goes on a laborious search for a bigger envelope, because the letter is now so thick. Then he goes out on to the street, but dawdles, waiting so long that all of the post offices have closed for the evening. Then he is suddenly overwhelmed with the desire for Felice to have the letter on her desk first thing in the morning, so he runs to the station, where urgent post can be put on the fast train to Berlin. On the way, sweating and in a panic, he meets an old acquaintance. Kafka tries to excuse himself, saying he is in a hurry and has to get the letter to the station. What kind of letter is so urgent, asks the acquaintance in amusement. ‘A proposal of marriage’. Says Kafka, amid laughter. . .
So how did Felice Bauer react to reading the most preposterous marriage proposal of all time? She was distraught. But even she, hardened as she is by now, probably hadn’t thought Kafka capable of surpassing that disastrous note of self-incrimination masked as a marriage proposal. But then Kafka writes his ‘Letter to the Father’. It never became as famous as the one he wrote to his own father. But it deserved to, because it’s simply incredible. On August 28th, Goethe’s birthday, Kafka asks Felice’s father whether he would entrust his daughter to him. Or rather: he implores him desperately not to entrust his daughter to him:
I am taciturn, unsociable, morose, selfish, a hypochondriac and genuinely in poor health. Among my family, the best, most loving people you could ever encounter, I live as a complete stranger. In recent years I’ve spoken and average of less than twenty words a day to my mother, and I’ve barely ever exchanged more than a few words of greeting with my father. I don’t speak to my married sisters and their husbands at all, unless I have something bad to say. I have no sense of how to co-habit normally with my family. And yet your daughter is supposed to live alongside a person like this, a healthy girt like her, whose nature has predestined her for genuine marital bliss? Is she supposed to bear it, leading a cloistered existence alongside the man who, admittedly, loves her as he has never been able to love anyone else, but who, by virtue of his unalterable destiny, spends most of his time either shut away in his room or wandering around alone?
1913; The Year Before The Storm by Florian Illies. Melville House, 2013. Pages 139 & 173